Wildlife

Calves and Kids

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As I walked the eager lurcher past the cattle enclosure, I stopped to take a photo of some of the new born calves. The mothers stepped forward aggressively at the sight of the leggy hound, instinct kicking in to protect their young. I didn’t loiter. No point in stressing the beasts. We crossed the greensward and a trio of peacocks scuttled away at our approach. One jumped up onto a wall and protested our intrusion, as vocal a guardian as any goose. The dog slipped a sly look at me and I said ‘leave!’, for I could see the murderous intention in that glimpse. He followed me obediently across the drive and into the wood. We stalked the plantation, not for the deer that browse there but because of the grey squirrels that feed here too. The commotion of rooks beyond the conifers caught my ear and I stood quietly in cover, the dog beside me. A broad sweep of wings saw the buzzard alight inside the wood, unaware that we were there. Wrens and great tits fussed in protest at the raptors presence but the old bird was just seeking refuge from his nagging black assailants. The dog stepped forward, his nose drawn to some badger scat and the buzzard lifted and soared back out into the open field. Immediately, the ugly chorus of rook-song began again and I stepped out to watch him escorted Eastward by a squadron of nagging corvids. Though it’s nowhere near nesting time, he had strayed too close to the rookery.

I chose the path across the high margin to Scots Wood. I drew down my bob-cap, turned up my collar and as I left the sanctuary of the trees, that wind slapped my face like an angry woman. The hares disappointed me in their absence. The cutting Easterly had obviously put them to the hollows, the old marl-pits that dot the woods here. During the crossing, the rooks turned their attention to the hunter and his hound, chastising us from high in the cold blue sky. At the entrance to Scots Wood I paused to let my eyes adjust to the gloom and the slice of the wind stopped as I stepped into the tree-line. There is an air to this wood that speaks of misdeed and murder. A gloomy place, haven to hare and roe and squirrel. The old poult pens have fallen into disrepair and tell a tale of a wood well stocked some years ago when gamekeepers trod here. Now, there is just myself and the deer stalker. I wonder if he imagines, too, the ghosts of the old Norfolk poachers wandering here? Snatching a hen pheasant or snaring a rabbit to feed the family or pay for their ale?

We walked on, putting a squirrel in the bag here and there as we went but scattering the legion of woodpigeons that sought shelter here from the cold. The path took us past the badger setts and old Dylan (my lurcher) surveyed their mass destruction, trembling. Ancient trees are leaning dangerously, their roots undermined by the black and white trolls. Plastic sapling guards littered the escarpment like pick-a-sticks and I noted that the diggings had now crossed the path I trod towards the West side of the wood. One day, I fear, this whole wood will collapse into an underworld ruled by Old Brock. It is sad to witness and can’t be stopped within legal resource.

Descending toward the water meadows, I watched three roe browsing out on the winter barley. A buck in velvet, a doe and a tall kid. They sensed the dog and I up in the wood and sprinted away across the field toward the Garden Wood. Later, in that small wood, I was to experience one of the most privileged displays of animal courage it has ever been my pleasure to witness. Deep within the Garden Wood, I had just dropped a grey squirrel and Dylan had run out to retrieve it, bringing it back to my feet. This had spooked the roe, who had (unbeknown to me) been lying close by. The kid ran out between the yew boles in front of us, saw the dog and froze. I whispered to the lurcher to ‘drop’ and he did. Then the buck ran in to stand alongside the petrified youngster. They stood just fifteen yards from us. The doe ran out and nudged the kid, putting it to flight. She followed it while the buck stood there. By now, I was having to talk loudly to my dog to ‘stay’. The lurcher was confused and felt threatened. The buck then ran to one side, turned and ran back the other way. Almost challenging the long-dog to chase. The dog stayed steadfast at yet another ‘stay!’ call. The buck turned away and went after it’s kin. Some sixty yards along the wood, the doe and kid stood waiting. I watched as the three sets of white rumps headed for the brook and the meadow beyond. For me, a terrific encounter. For the dog, confusion and conflict. I praised him for his obedience and thought I’d best put an extra helping of squirrel in his bowl tonight.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015

Roes, Raptors and Snowdrops

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Rod doe and snowdrops

(First published February 2014)

The only creatures that seem to be enjoying the spate of gales and squalls on this wild weekend seem to be the rooks, as usual. Driving up the long, metalled drive to the farm I watched them soar, face to the wind, then wheel and dive. Testing their flying skills against the gusts like little black surfers on an invisible ocean. I was taking advantage of a break in the rain to walk the estate and check on the storm damage. The farm and hall are high on an escarpment (well, about as high as you can get in Norfolk!). I could feel the powerful draft buffeting the X-Trail and could see the bend of the high trees surrounding the farm buildings. Yet even these portents hadn’t prepared me for the sound that assailed my ears when I stepped from the parked motor. As I turned to grab my camera from the car I sensed, rather than saw, the almost malevolent snatch at the car door and pulled my arm free before the door slammed with a force that most certainly would have broken bone. I hung the DSLR around my neck, shouldered my game-bag and slung the rifle over my shoulder. The latter, an absolutely futile exercise in this gale.

The roar of wind through branches battered at my ears like the sound of breakers smashing on a rocky shore. I opened the tailgate and a nervous lurcher looked carefully about at a tree-line in perpetual motion before jumping out to stand nearby. A grinding, wrenching noise made me look about nervously and the dog jumped behind me as an ivy covered beech, a mere youngster, snapped and tumbled across the track twenty yards away. A surge of adrenalin coursed through me and I stepped out into the wood. Dylan, my dog, walked a few yards in front looking up at the trees as they swayed like dark-boned skeletons doing a ‘Mexican-wave’. The sound was simply awesome but the constant shower of brash threatened to cause harm so we wound our way down the escarpment into the shelter of the valley. I stood and looked at the flooded water meadows, peppered with the colour of wildfowl feeding out on the shallow splashes. Above me, the sun was battling to peep through the scant but scudding cumuli. We crossed the meadow and drew into the garden wood, which sat tight below a steep drop under the Hall. The most sheltered place on the estate.

Even in here, the woodland floor was littered with the flotsam and jetsam of the week’s relentless battering from rain and wind. The lurcher marked passively and stood still. A hare stood up from its form and loped away, as if knowing the old dog wouldn’t give chase. All around us the furtive scuttle of fleeing pheasants caught the eye, the survivors of yet another winters campaign. Dylan sniffed at some recent squirrel diggings and cast around but surely he must have known that on such a day, the greys would be drey-huddled? No .. today was a day for rambling aimlessly, not hunting. Yet in the hunters dog, hope always springs eternal. Further on we came to the stunning, wide carpets of snowdrops which would see this wood open to the public and forbidden to me next week. All in good charitable cause, though. Movement behind a stand of broom caught my eye and out stepped a roe deer to look nervously about while I snatched her soul and saved it for eternity on a digital image. She couldn’t see us. Probably thinking that I was a tree, stood in camouflage, and the dog must have looked like another patch of snowdrops with his white and grey coat. Eventually we moved and she ran off.

Out in the meadow beyond the wood, I was hoping to snap the boxing hares I had watched the weekend before but it must have been too windy for romance. The buzzard (as he often does) came down to soar above us but alas no dead squirrels for Lord Buteo on this day, I’m afraid. The wind, as we turned back into its teeth, had picked up even more. A quick risk assessment told me it was time to leave nature to nature. “C’mon Snowdrop!” I called and the lurcher looked at me quizzically? “Time to go home!”. With a wag of his scruffy tail he trotted away in the direction of the motor.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015

Rabbits and Spiders

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House spider

The clatter and crash of wheels and cogs turning ceased as soon as I saw the open view across the morning stubbles. There was nothing wrong with the X-Trail. The noise was in my head, the turmoil of yet another poor nights sleep. Before I’d left, the digital weather station in the kitchen told me that (at just 6.30am) it was 17C and the humidity was a staggering 90%. A legacy of last nights rainfall .. and the reason for my insomnia. Stepping out now onto the cropped barley fields, the moisture hung as a spectral, golden mist. The ghost of dawn battling against the ascending orb of the sun. There would be only one winner in this skirmish today and, looking at my panting lurcher, I knew we needed to take our patrol at a gentle pace. This was a glorious time of day to be out with a gun and a dog.

The cusp between night and day sees a flurry of activity as the wild creatures change shift. Old Charlie steals back to his den, padding alongside the hedgerow, to do whatever foxes do during the heat of a summers day. The barn owl makes her last sweep around the meadow margins at the same time as the sparrow-hawk lifts off to start his hunting, one birds suppertime vole being the others breakfast. Brimstones danced around the purple loosestrife already, the butterfly worlds earliest risers using that huge proboscis to drink from the deep flowers. Far out on the stubble the rooks were feeding on and around the huge, cylindrical bales. The harvest mites are plentiful but the birds have to work for their meal .. chasing the little chiggers here and there. Over near the pine coverts, a doe is browsing with her faun following closely. She has an air of ambiguity around her, even though she has sensed my presence. Perhaps she knows I pose no threat? Or perhaps she knows it’s nowhere near November the first yet?

So we set off, my hound and I, to cross the shorn field and stalk the sixteen acre wood for grey squirrels. It should be simple, shouldn’t it? To cross a stubble field? Not for Mr Barnett, who stops to examine everything of interest. The tortoiseshell butterfly caterpillars munching on weeds. Their striped and hairy bodies warn the passing jay or rook that their flavour could be perilous. The badgers prints in the loamy soil, showing where Brock has hoovered up those huge black slugs and done the farmer a service last night. A mysterious jelly fungus on the fallen branch beneath the lone maple that stands in the middle of the field needs photographing, to enable identification, so out comes the camera. The lurcher glances at me with that air of frustration. We’re meant to be hunting, boss? Eventually we reach the wood and the long-dog slopes in along the track and lies on his belly on the cool, damp grass. I understand his relief. I’m already melting but rather than undo another button on my shirt, I do an extra one up. We’re now in tick territory and in this weather they will be abundant, clinging to the ferns and briar leaves, waiting for a mammalian host. We move quietly through the forest, helped by a sumptuous damp layer of leaf mulch drenched by last nights deluge. There are only the windfall twigs to avoid and the dog cracks one before I do. My chance to return the icy stare and he glances back over his shoulder with a doleful apology.

Back to the work in hand and the lurcher finds the enemy first, his radar dish ears zoning in on the scrabble of tiny claws. His nose points to a trunk some thirty yards off and I see the flick of a bottle brush tail snake around the slender bole until just its tip remains. Then even that withdraws. That ‘look’ again, from the hound. I had obviously been neglectful in my duty. When the grey appears on a branch, squatting, my rifle is slung back over my shoulder and I’m wiping sweat from my spectacles with a lens cloth. The panting lurcher is looking at me as though I’m mad. I feel like handing him the rifle and saying “Go on! You blimmin’ shoot it, smart arse!”

We move on. As we near the end of the path, about to emerge into the fields again, the dog stops … bristling. I stop and scan the woods edge, then spot it. It’s laid up, neck craned, watching me. I reach for the camera but that simple movement puts the young red stag to flight. A handsome sapling and one I’m sure I’ll meet again. Dylan crawls under the bottom rail of the steel gate and I drop my rifle, safety catch on, against the gatepost. The game-bag is lowered gently to the other side and I clamber quietly over. As I recover my rifle and shoulder the bag I note that the dog is transfixed on something, his right paw dangling, marking quarry. I kneel alongside him, away from the gate now, and there is a rabbit just twenty yards away .. frozen. It’s seen the dog and now, me. I raise the gun, sight up through the scope and all I see is a dark fugue, a blur. I pull my eye away to check the lens (which is clear) but that’s enough movement to make the coney bolt. Dylan starts to lunge but I call him off quickly … “Nooo!”

I’m still puzzled and, checking the safety catch is on, turn the gun around to look at the front lens of the scope. I nearly drop the gun. Planted, legs akimbo across the 40mm lens, is a nursery web spider, which must have dropped into the lens while I crossed the gate. I flick the little beastie out with a straw husk and sit back against the gate for a while. The lurcher comes to lie alongside me in the shade. Lord … that rabbit was blessed. Saved by a spider, of all things. But that’s how Mother Nature rolls, doesn’t she? I didn’t shoot a damn thing this morning, but it didn’t matter. Why? Because I will remember, to my dying day, the rabbit that was saved by the spider.

 

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler. January 2015

The Frozen Woodpigeon

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Woodpigeons roosting in snow

I picked up a frozen pigeon the other morning, lying on the path as stiff as a board. The mercury had plummeted to about -4C overnight but it was the cutting easterly wind that would have beaten the bird, sending its body temperature well below survival level. Being out there in the fields and woods amid the wild creatures I watch, protect and (where necessary) cull, exposes me to the often casual cruelty of Nature herself. It is a world, to me, devoid of ambition or politics or petty conflict. It is a pure, raw world where the only clock is the rising or the setting of the sun. For the wild animal and bird, each days agenda is dictated by the need to feed, to breed, to raise young, to survive. Natures jurisdiction is unquestionable and often unfathomable. Under her rule, sometimes severe but largely beneficial, each living thing thrives or fails … us humans included. Don’t ever doubt that. A few years ago I recall a similar morning when I was picking woodpigeons from the floor that had literally frozen to death at roost (in the grand scheme of things, a mere ‘flick’ of Mother Natures right hand). I returned home that morning to hear that she had swept her left hand across the other side of the world and raised a tsunami that had killed many thousands of her ‘higher order’ subjects.

Now there’s a controversial statement! Are we a ‘higher order’? Am I being arrogant? I don’t believe I am. I reflect on this in the opening chapter of my second shooting book, Airgun Fieldcraft. There are many people (usually with no connection to the countryside) who think we humans have a duty to protect all other creatures from harm. I’m sorry, but I have to disagree. Our evolution (therefore Nature herself) has placed us at the top of a food chain. We are, across most of the planet, Natures stewards. We have been hunting for food since we learned how to stand on two feet. The fact that we learned how to herd and farm livestock was a credit to our intelligence but then we had to learn how to protect that stock … through shepherding and predator control. Mankind learned to trap and fish at the same time. If we hadn’t learned these skills, homo sapiens wouldn’t exist as a species today. Thus our stewardship has grown into more than just farming or fishing for food, it has extended into a responsibility for species conservation, wild herd management and game-keeping.

Yet … and I cover this subject at length in my books … I would never advocate senseless or, worse still, insensitive slaughter of any wild creature. What we do enjoy (and why I believe we are the higher order) is the intelligence and power of reasoning to discriminate. We have it within our power to help control wildlife numbers, to protect our own economic needs, to defend vulnerable species. We also have … and many forget this … the wisdom and governance to stop our activities sometimes and take stock. Certainly, modern humanity has worked hard to do this and correct the sins of its ancestors through the use of international protective laws and exclusion lists to preserve threatened species.

I used a very powerful and often misunderstood word in the text above. Cruelty. The Wikipedia definition is superb and should be learned by all … “indifference to suffering, and even pleasure in inflicting it”. Is Nature indifferent? Does she take pleasure in causing the death of her minions? We will never know, nor is it our place to know. We do, however, know our own minds and conscience. If we hunters can satisfy ourselves that neither of the above criteria apply, we can dismiss those accusations (from those who don’t understand our role within Natures grand scheme) that we are cruel.

Hunters, shooters, keepers and trappers have a moral duty under Natures simple laws to respect the demise of their charges. For ‘charges’ they truly are. Once they appear in our sights, nets or contraptions we have an unerring duty to ensure a quick, clean dispatch. For most wild creatures (taken unawares by a skilled and efficient hunter) there is no time to endure distress or pain. Certainly, far less so than freezing to death slowly clinging to a stark, bare branch in an English winter wood … like the wood-pigeon I picked up this morning.

© Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015

Snowstorms and Witches

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Looking back before entering the silent wood, I stared at the gun-metal grey sky and acknowledged the threat. In the distance a couple of huge wind-turbines stood sentinel, their blades still. Two white aliens etched onto a slate canvas. The lurcher stood beside me, scenting the ice cold breeze. The silence was eerie, menacing, the lack of birdsong foreboding. Not rook, nor blackbird, stirred. Glancing along the woods edge I could see a hundred grey bundles huddled in the naked boughs of the winter oaks. How many wood-pigeons had survived that bitter night? These squadrons were gathered to take flight and find food, having spent the dark hours within the stark sanctuary of the ivy. As the first snowflakes drifted from the sky, we claimed asylum in the thick wood, the dog and I.

Nothing moved between the trees or up in the canopy. Beneath a wide and ancient beech, a huge umbrella of a tree, we sheltered from the micro-blizzard. A passing snow-storm which gave a white dusting to dress the frozen plough beyond the copse. Once it passed, the blackbirds appeared and sang their redemption song, high in the oaks. Heralds, wakening the fretful wood and calling all living things to go about their business. The threat had passed, for now. The lurcher at my side glanced up at me, as if reminding me that we had business to attend to. He knew, through a decade of attendance to my gun, that there was a pattern emerging here. Glimpsing between the trees I looked for the sign that my predictions would be right and sure enough, the hint of a yellow sun burning behind the drifting cloud announced the change that would come. We walked on beneath a shower of dripping slush, as the sun thawed the canopy. A broad grin crossed my face, and probably the lurchers too, for the heat that melts the snow also warms the drey and makes the squirrel come out to play! For that was our purpose today. To once again play our part in stemming the seemingly unstoppable insurgence of the grey invader. The wood had woken now, lit by golden sunbeams. We were announced by the trill of the robin and the tut of the wren. A great spotted woodpecker took umbrage to our passing and let the whole of Norfolk know we were abroad. No matter. It’s for birds like this (a mischievous thief in his own right) that we work. Soon the wood was fully awake. Jackdaws ‘chakked’ and pigeons flushed from cover as we moved slowly along. The feeling of being watched isn’t new to me in a wood so I wasn’t surprised that the topple of the first squirrel was greeted by the ‘mewl’ of the sentinel buzzard. Abandoned now by kith and kin, he patrols the winter wood and soared now, between the beech boles, up into the yellow sky. We filled the bag slowly, Dylan and I. He marking, me shooting, he retrieving. A solid, practised and ancient team. Yet the walk wasn’t just about the cull. Indeed, the cull doesn’t matter most days. We don’t count the numbers. It’s futile, as they just keep coming. The walk is about watching the tree-creeper scuttle up the oak bark, seeking lord-knows-what in this cold? It’s about the weasel snaking between the briars, the peep of the little owl from the split beech bower, the jump of the roe deer from its cover. Once again today, the stand-off between lurcher and hare. We put her up as she sheltered in a hollow in the Garden Wood. I stayed the eager dog and he obeyed, as always. I left the safety catch on but scoped the wood-witch and stared into her eye again. Her dark brown eye mirrored my soul. Wild, free, careless yet cautious. She dared me to shoot her, staring back at me. Probably the twentieth encounter with this wild witch. I declined and she loped off. The dog was staring at me in disbelief. That’s the difference between me and him. I know that the day I steal that witches soul is the day she will steal mine back. I’m not ready for reincarnation yet. With a sack-full of squirrels we left the wood and walked the open path back to the motor under a chill and yellow sky. I’d survived the witch again. When the time is right, we’ll exchange souls … and I’ll run the wild wood forever.

A Heffalump Hunt

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Badger print in snow

(Written last winter)

As we set across the open service track between the farm buildings and the sixteen acre coverts, the bitter Easterly wind picked up the nights light dusting of snow and whipped it in tiny eddies across the frozen plough. The lurcher cast into the breeze, his light, rough coat swept horizontal by the wind. Not gusting but constant, this Arctic-born zephyr cut like a knife, bringing tears to my eyes. We hurried over the white mile, man and dog eager to reach the relative shelter of the wood, paws and boots cracking the fragile ice covering the puddled tractor ruts.

Inside the wood we were to meet disappointment. The cold wind chased us mercilessly and sent her icy sprites dancing among the pine boles to bite the exposed skin. I was well wrapped in micro-fleece and sub-layers of cotton but the imps soon found my cheeks and trigger finger. Thankfully I had a Zippo hand-warmer cooking in my pocket to relieve the latter. The lurcher had scant protection. Not much meat on this little bag o’ bones running machine and he kept stopping to nip the balled up ice gathering between his pads. I pulled the fleece snood up to cover my chin and set off deeper into the wood. This was a day to keep moving.

Pretty soon I noticed the tracks of a single beast impressed in the shallow snow ahead of me. The dog had his snout down and was following them keenly. Huge prints, padded and clawed. Twice the size of the dogs. All those speculative stories about big cats in this area of Norfolk immediately leapt to mind. Having little other purpose this morning (any sensible vermin being holed up in burrow or drey)  I decided to follow them for as far I could. I knew what the beast was, of course. I’ve been tracking animals for too long to be fooled by these prints. Nonetheless, there was fun to be had here. Here we were, my hound and I, in the sixteen-acre plantation playing at being Piglet and Pooh  … on the trail of a Heffalump!

The trail followed along a man-made ride pretty rigidly, though now and again I could see where the mythical beast had veered off to scent and spray. The pheromones of that spray sending a shiver of caution through Piglet, my lurcher. His fear was palpable, yet he bravely nosed on. We both jumped, hearts in mouths, when a red stag leapt up from cover and called its two hinds up behind him. The huge deer leapt to safety, his harem following, as the dog stood panting.

Eventually the tracks left the path and headed off under bare briar and over sandy hummock, deep into the nether-land of the coverts. This is where Piglet came into his own, following the scent while Pooh could only trust and follow, picking up a print here and there. I was comforted by the regular evidence of snuffling and rooting. Areas of leaf mulch thrown up as the creature had sought slight morsels of food which could surely never satisfy its bulky frame? This was a big beast, needing substantial sustenance.

I never expected to meet this particular Heffalump face to face so I carried no fear in the hunt. I knew he was a creature of the night. Thus, it was no real surprise when Piglet finally led me to the mouth of the Heffalump den. A hole so large the dog, standing 24″ at the shoulder, could almost enter if he dared. The dogs nose pulled him inward, curiosity mixed with fear but he soon retreated. It was almost as though he could visualise the cast iron claw and the vicious tooth of the beast. He withdrew a distance, bidding me ( with a witter and whine) to come away too.

As we left the lair of the Heffalump, we followed the tracks made as it had exited the nest at the start of its nocturnal expedition. Just like Pooh and Piglet, we followed them around to where we had first seen the trail .. full circle. Now a foolish hunter could have been tricked into thinking that at this point, the creature had been joined by a man and a dog .. and gone around the trail again.  Heffalumps always seem to hunt in circles. So do badgers. Could our beast have been a badger? Well, possibly it could have been a massive boar badger, with tracks like that? But I’d like to think that I’d found a Heffalump lair. What do you think?

Archangels and Owls

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Barn owl hunting (9)

My home is close to the Marriott Way, a disused railway line that has been converted into a cycleway / footpath that stretches between Norwich city centre and Aylsham. The path passes through some of the most attractive farmland in Norfolk, including some of my shooting permissions. Much of it cuts along the valley of the River Wensum, a winding chalk-stream rich in kingfishers, otters and trout. Though it can be a busy cycling thoroughfare, if you pick your times you can see much of this fauna. Which is why I picked the hour before dusk to give Dylan, my lurcher, a good run and enjoy some recreational exercise myself.

The late afternoon January sunshine had injected some friskiness into the winter lethargy of bird and beast. Though nowhere near Spring, titmice and chaffinches flirted among the still naked boughs of the beech and hazel lining the wide sandy track. It’s as though the sun blew the whistle and the mating game is on. Out along the distant fence bordering a sheep pasture, rabbits chased amorously. A lively warren, on the wrong side of my permission boundary. No matter. They will ensure, through their creep and incursion, that my presence will still be welcome beyond the wire this summer.

This late in the day, with the mist rising lightly from the flood meadows and the rooks thronging homeward overhead, the temperature was already on the wane. The pale moon which had hung in the blue sky all day promised a hoar frost tonight. It was no surprise then, when I stepped out onto the iron bridge, to see a barn owl hunting keenly. She sailed up and down the fringes of the meadow like a huge moth, following the bends of the river. I watched … and snapped with the camera … as she made her feints into the sedges and came up with nothing. Then, she struck gold. A vole, carried out into the meadow, into the shorter cattle-grazed turf. I watched her toy with the tiny mammal before lifting it with her beak and then swallowing it, as a kingfisher does when eating a minnow, in two gagging gulps.

As she cast off again, I noticed a snow white form perched on a tree limb beyond where the owl had fed. Totally out of synch with its surroundings. A little egret, becoming a common sight hereabouts now though certainly not a native. A tiny, slender cousin to the grey heron but with the plumage of an archangel .. pure white. Its black gaiters and yellow slippers make it look slightly Bohemian but that sharp black bill is as deadly as the herons. A keenly honed fish or frog spear. It took off, perhaps sensing my vigil, then courted danger as it floated across the power lines and out of sight.

A sonorous, rhythmic noise made me jump and made the lurcher leap up to look over the bridge parapet. My camera swung up like a shotgun. A mute swan beat up and over the bridge just yards above us and I could feel the downdraft from its powerful wings as I focused and consigned its image to my collection. On the walk home, a robin stopped to serenade us from a fence post, backlit by the setting sun. Ahead, that full moon was shining brighter now. A reminder to man, bird and beast that tonight would be as cold as a warlocks heart.

The Sickly Fox

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Ailing fox dying in winter ditch (2)

A lengthy walk with the camera and lurcher seemed the order of the day. Some stiff medication precluded driving too far so it was a short hop to a circular riverside walk to give an unfit hunter, an aging lurcher and a 500mm lens some fresh air. Alongside the water meadows, the bare winter blackthorns were alive with foraging finches, buntings and titmice. A blue tit posed atop one shrub, his crest raised angrily at my intrusion. As he whistled the loudest chastisement he could muster, I stole his soul for posterity with the Nikon.

Further along, out in the frost-parched reed beds Ole Frank stood statuesque. The grey heron (or harnser as we call them locally) is the biggest avian predator. He’s partial to a plump pheasant hatchling and I’ve personally photographed such plunder but like the buzzard, he is protected by law from the keepers wrath. The frogs would be dug in deep in this cold so I guessed the reason for the vigil would be the field voles that thrive among the sedges.

Up on the fresh plough of the valley sides a small gaggle of foreigners huddled against the wind. The lurcher paced up and down the track catching their scent on the breeze. Egyptian geese. Strange looking wildfowl and though there are only about 500 breeding pairs in the UK I see them frequently along this stretch of the River Wensum. As I watched them, the lurchers demeanour changed from passive to highly alert. Something was spooking him. I looked about carefully and at first couldn’t understand his concern. He ranged along the track and back to me, ears erect, nostrils quivering. A fearful reaction usually reserved for rats, feral cats or foxes.

We walked on and, behind a cattle gate, I saw the rufus bundle lying amongst the blackthorn tangle. Raising the zoom lens to catch it’s inevitable flight, I found myself looking into a dark, pathetic eye. The fox didn’t move. A blink told me it was still alive. As we pressed towards it, the beast attempted to move but was too weak to draw from the bush. I had no idea what what wrong with it. I heeled in the lurcher, who was skulking like a hyena. Two hunters, the fox and I, stood six feet apart staring at each other. His eyes bore not the look of resignation, more a look of expectation. I could only stand there angry and frustrated. With no gun to hand to put an end to the creatures obvious misery, I looked up and down the public footpath. Had I been deep in-country, the outcome here might have been different. Despite the fact that I had a natural killer at my heel, I couldn’t risk letting the lurcher despatch the fox because of a crass, bastard law dreamed up by a bunch of urban politicians who will never be faced with such a situation. One credible witness, misinterpreting the scene, could see my dog destroyed and me prosecuted for cruelty.

So I had to do something more barbaric and inhumane. I had to walk away and leave the pathetic creature. With -2C forecast here tonight .. a frightful death almost guaranteed. That stare will haunt me for months to come. A stare that demanded a merciful resolution that the dog could have granted but was denied by those who know nothing about the real way of the wild.

©Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, January 2015

The Proposed Grey Squirrel Cull .. My Thoughts

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Grey squirrel pair in hollow

It’s strange how quickly public opinion can be influenced when the right people push the right buttons. This weekend it was announced that HMG and the Forestry Commission are about to announce a national grey squirrel cull. For years most of the popular media has decried the hunting of grey squirrels in this country, preferring to paint a picture of Squirrel Nutkin as a cute visitor to the urban garden or park. Of course, hunters and foresters have held the opposite view for half a century. In fact, since they saw the decline and extinction of native red squirrel populations in all but a few isolated corners of the UK. For foresters, it is their bark-stripping (which kills young trees to the tune of £10M per annum) that makes it unpopular. For most landowners, it is the squirrels appetite for songbird and game bird eggs or chicks which signs its death warrant. Recently, HRH Prince Charles surprised many by lending support to the culling of grey squirrels on his own land in the Duchy of Cornwall. His Royal Highness has got right behind the Red Squirrel Conservation groups. A few weeks later saw a flurry of media articles opening the debate on the ethics of culling one species to save another. Nearly all of the articles I’ve read have been well intentioned but have failed to compare the issue to other historic wildlife ‘nuisance’ pogroms. The problem, of course (and even I concur with this, despite shooting hundreds of them every year on behalf of landowners) is that the grey squirrel with its chestnut eyes and fluffy tail looks cute. An article in the Guardian (typical of the publication, a sit-on-the-fence assessment of the current dilemna) even suggested that as greys squirrels are the nearest that some urban children ever get to seeing a wild animal, they have an importance now in British ecology. I think the writer is wrong. Urban children are much more likely to see a brown rat … and I don’t hear many people advocating feeding rats in the park! Recently a piece from the Mail was shared on Facebook about a school playground being evacuated because of a vicious grey squirrel. Is this the start of a media u-turn on our little American immigrant? Speaking of Americans, what about the mink, that other little bloodthirsty invader (released into the wild years ago by the sort of folk who would want to save the grey squirrel). I don’t see anyone campaigning to protect the mink or claiming it has an important status in our ecology?  Yet a Government approved cull would be futile unless married to solid initiatives to re-introduce the native red. The red squirrel enclaves need to be cleared of greys and then protected in the way the Cumbrian Red Squirrel Group have with their full time, sponsored Rangers. The war against the grey squirrel on the areas I shoot is a war of attrition. The creature breeds twice a year, producing up to four kits. Those kits are capable of breeding within four months. There can be as many as ten dreys (nests) per acre in some woods. As fast as I can clear a tract of woodland, it starts to fill again … for nature abhors a vacuum. And therein lies the rub. Complete removal of the grey squirrel population in Britain would be impossible while it is upheld as welcome garden visitor and parkland attraction. The only choice for our native red squirrel are ‘safe havens’, rigidly patrolled by people with airguns. People like me. Trapping worries me, as there will be red squirrel casualties in areas where they breed. In barren red areas, it is a vital first step in eradication of greys. The choice is simple. If the native squirrel is to survive, it’s ‘red or dead’.

Ian Barnett
Author, photographer and hunter.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, Jan 2015
www.wildscribbler.co.uk